How do Plants Capture Sunlight to Make Food?

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SWBAT explain how plants capture energy from sunlight to produce food.

Big Idea

Students research the photosynthesis process in order to construct an evidence-based argument that plants capture the sun's energy to make food. After creating a poster to present their team's argument, students will participate in a Gallery Walk.

Lesson Overview

Inquiry Based Instructional Model

To intertwine scientific knowledge and practices and to empower students to learn through exploration, it is essential for scientific inquiry to be embedded in science education. While there are many types of inquiry-based models, one model that I've grown to appreciate and use is called the FERA Learning Cycle, developed by the National Science Resources Center (NSRC):

1. Focus

2. Explore

3. Reflect

4. Apply

A framework for implementation can be found here

I absolutely love how the Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology explains that this is "not a locked-step method" but "rather a cyclical process," meaning that some lessons may start off at the focus phase while others may begin at the explore phase. 

Finally, an amazing article found at, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEMvery clearly outlines how inquiry based learning "paves the way for effective learning in science" and supports College and Career Readiness, particularly in the area of STEM career choices. 

Unit Explanation

In this unit, students will first develop an understanding of the biotic and abiotic factors within ecosystems, the characteristics and classification of living organisms, and how plants and animals obtain and use energy to fulfill their needs. 

Then, students will delve deeper into the NGSS standards by examining the interdependent relationships within an ecosystem by studying movement of matter between producers, consumers, and decomposers by creating models of food chains and food webs.  

At the end of this unit, students will study ways that individual communities can use science ideas to protect the Earth's resources and environment.  

Summary of Lesson

Today, I will open the lesson by discussing the meaning of energy and how plants use energy. Students will then explore how plants make food using the sun's energy. At the end of the lesson, students will reflect and apply their new understanding of photosynthesis by participating in a Gallery Walk.

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will support the following NGSS Standard(s):

5-LS1-1.    Support an argument that plants get the materials they need for growth chiefly from air and water.  

Scientific & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in the following Science & Engineering Practice:

Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence

Students research the photosynthesis process in order to construct an evidence-based argument that plants capture sunlight to make food. 

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate ideas across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on the following Crosscutting Concept:  

Crosscutting Concept 5: Energy and Matter

Students track the flow of energy from the sun to plants by explaining how plants absorb light energy. 

Disciplinary Core Ideas

In addition, this lesson also aligns with the following Disciplinary Core Ideas

PS3.D:  Energy in Chemical Processes and Everyday Life

The energy released [from] food was once energy from the sun that was captured by plants in the chemical process that forms plant matter (from air and water). (5-PS3-1)

LS1.C:  Organization for Matter and Energy Flow in Organisms

Plants acquire their material for growth chiefly from air and water. (5-LS1-1)

LS2.A:  Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems

The food of almost any kind of animal can be §traced back to plants. Organisms are related in food webs in which some animals eat plants for food and other animals eat the animals that eat plants. Some organisms, such as fungi and bacteria, break down dead organisms (both plants or plants parts and animals) and therefore operate as “decomposers.” Decomposition eventually restores (recycles) some materials back to the soil. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their particular needs are met. A healthy ecosystem is one in which multiple species of different types are each able to meet their needs in a relatively stable web of life. Newly introduced species can damage the balance of an ecosystem. (5-LS2-1)

LS2.B:  Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems

Matter cycles between the air and soil and among plants, animals, and microbes as these organisms live and die. Organisms obtain gases, and water, from the environment, and release waste matter (gas, liquid, or solid) back into the environment. (5-LS2-1)

ELA Integration

To add depth to student understanding, when I can, I'll often integrate ELA standards with science lessons. Today, students will work on meeting CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.7: Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently. In this lesson, students will be using multiple resources (both print and digital) to locate the answer to the question, "How do plants capture sunlight to make food?" 

Choosing Science Teams

With science, it is often difficult to find a balance between providing students with as many hands-on experiences as possible, having plenty of science materials, and offering students a collaborative setting to solve problems. Any time groups have four or more students, the opportunities for individual students to speak and take part in the exploration process decreases. With groups of two, I often struggle to find enough science materials to go around. So this year, I chose to place students in teams of three! Picking science teams is always easy as I already have students placed in desk groups based upon behavior, abilities, and communication skills. Each desk group has about six kids, so I simply divide this larger group in half. 

Gathering Supplies & Assigning Roles

To encourage a smooth running classroom, I ask students to decide who is a 1, 2, or 3 in their groups of three students (without talking). In no time, each student has a number in the air. I'll then ask the "threes" to get certain supplies, "ones" to grab their computers, and "twos" to hand out papers (or whatever is needed for the lesson). This management strategy has proven to be effective when cleaning up and returning supplies as well!  


10 minutes

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I introduce today's learning goal: I can explain how plants capture energy from sunlight to produce food. I begin by asking: What is energy anyways? Turn and talk. After some time, students point out that you need energy to run a mile. Others explain that their parents sometimes say they have too much energy when they are being silly. 

Using the Energy Vocabulary Poster, I explain: Energy is the ability to do work. So plants need energy to "do work," but what kind of work does a plant have? I then wrote on the board: Why do plants need energy?, and ask students to turn and talk! 

We then discuss that plants need energy to grow (a new leaf or growing from a seed into a plant) and to reproduce (make seeds and flowers). We make a quick list on the board: Why do Plants Need Energy?

Developing a Fact-Based Explanation

I explain: In past lessons, we've discussed how plants are producers because the can produce their own food. I know that you all know this, but can you provide a detailed and fact-based explanation of how this actually happens? 

Today, you will be using multiple sources to research the photosynthesis process. Then, you'll develop team posters to present evidence that supports the following Main Idea: Plants capture sunlight to make food.

After about 30 minutes, we will have a Gallery Walk. This is where teams of students will rotate around the room in order to leave feedback on other team's posters. I explain more about how the Gallery Walk works later on, but just keep in mind: You'll want to make sure the facts on your poster clearly support the main idea. 


30 minutes

During the next 30 minutes, teams of students work together to research the photosynthesis process while taking notes on a team poster. I'm hoping to see students explain how plants use the sun's energy to produce their own food. 

Getting Ready

I invite one student in each group to get a computer. I have found that students work more collaboratively if they are circled up around one computer instead of each having their own individual computers. 

I also ask students to get a white poster (11 x 17 paper), Photosynthesis Clipart handout (students are always asking if they can include clipart), and a different colored marker for each student on their team. Asking each student to use a different colored marker allows both the students and I the opportunity to monitor the participation levels of all students on the team. Students will often take extra care to make sure all students on the team have written equal amounts of information on the poster.  

Sharing resources

For student research today, I email students a variety of resources to provide multiple pathways to learning: 


The video resource is a great starting place as it helps support visual and auditory learners, however, I notice some teams struggling with pausing and gleaning important facts from the video. I take the time to explicitly show students how to listen for key information, pause, and replay. 

Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin working, I conference with every group. My goal is to support students by asking guiding questions (listed below). I also want to encourage students to engage in Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence

  1. What patterns have you noticed? 
  2. Why do you suppose ____? 
  3. What have you found so far? 
  4. Has your thinking changed? 
  5. What evidence do you have? 
  6. How did you decide _____?
  7. What conclusion can you draw about ____?

Student Conferences

During this conference, Including Key Words, I encourage the students to make sure they are including key words, such as photosynthesis. Using vocabulary is an important part of vocabulary development. 

In both of these conferences, Encouraging Elaboration and Encouraging Elaboration 2, I continually ask students to elaborate further by adding onto their sentences, by explaining the meaning of a word, and by giving more precise details. This is not only important for presentation purposes, but also to ensure that students are grasping a deeper level of understanding. 

Student Work

Here are a few examples of student posters during this time:

Reflect & Apply

30 minutes

Sharing Findings

Now that students have built meaning and understanding by observing, questioning, and exploring, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to share their findings. For this reason, I invite students to partake in a Gallery Walk. 

Gallery Walk Directions

I invite students up to the front carpet to explain: Today, you will have about 12 minutes to walk around the room and give feedback. If we rotate four times, this will give you three minutes to look over each team's poster and provide feedback. This means that you won't get to every team's poster, but every team will get feedback! 

Before we begin, I want to provide you with some feedback prompts. I refer to the Gallery Walk Poster on the wall: If you want more information, you might ask, "Can you please explain ____ more?" And if there's a part that's confusing, you could state, "The part about ____ is confusing because..." Of course, you can agree or disagree, but if you don't make sure you do so kindly, by writing, "I respectfully disagree with ____ because..." 

Finally, you might ask a question. There are six levels of questions that you might ask. A level one question might begin with Who? What? When? or Why? On the other hand, higher level questions would include: What would you recommend if ____? or What would it be like if ____ 

I hand out a copy of Tic-Tac-Toe Notes to each group and explain: There are nine boxes on each paper. Your job as a team is to rotate from poster to poster and to leave feedback in one or more of the boxes. (Teacher Note: I guess I could have tried to come up with something more creative that connects to the Tic-Tac-Toe game, but I wanted the focus to be on providing feedback!)

I then provide some final advice: Remember, write neatly so that your feedback is helpful. Also, make sure you read the feedback of other teams before leaving your own comments or questions so that you don't repeat what's already been said. Take the time to really THINK about each poster. We're not leaving feedback just for fun, we want to make sure that our feedback actually helps the team make their work more precise!  

Gallery Walk 

During the Gallery Walk, I carry around a timer so I can ask students to rotate every three minutes. I also conference with students to make sure students are leaving helpful feedback.

During this conference, Gallery Walk Conference 1, the group explains that the group states that the plant is the most complex life on earth, but doesn't explain why so they write the question, "Why is the plant the most complex life on earth?" I think this is a great question as it will challenge this group to think about how they can turn this into an evidence-based statement. 

Here, Gallery Walk Conference 2, the student uses two of the Gallery Walk prompts: I agree because... and Can you explain ___ further? He then explains that the team has made a grammatical error (transports/transported). I redirect his focus on science content by asking him: How else could they add more details? 

Making Changes

For the last five minutes of today's lesson, students return to their posters to read feedback (Example of one Group's Tic Tac Toe Notes) and make changes. If we had more time, I would have had students share out how specific student feedback led to their poster revisions. However, walking around the room, I am pleased to hear students saying, "I think we need to add..." or "I think we need to reword this part."